How ‘Watchmen’ Balances Pleasing Comic Book Fans and Newcomers Alike

Watchmen masks episode 3

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel Watchmen is a dense and complex work. When the HBO adaptation was announced, the biggest question would be how closely it would follow the graphic novel, and whether you needed to read it beforehand. The truth is, you can argue both for and against reading the graphic novel, it just depends on what you want out of Watchmen. This is a show that rewards long-time fans, but which also offers a unique experience for newcomers.

A Comedian Died In New York

The first episode doesn’t really address the source material that much, except in passing. There’s that weird squid rain, a quick shot of a blue being living on Mars, and a TV show that we occasionally cut to that recounts the story of a group of superheroes. Other than that, we’re pretty much watching a standalone story.

In an interview with Esquire, Damon Lindelof, the creator of HBO’s Watchmen, compared watching this adaptation to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, which he saw before the first Godfather. As Lindelof tells it, “If you watch The Godfather 2 first, and you don’t even know that The Godfather exists, you can still totally understand it. That’s because it’s basically Don Corleone’s story with all De Niro’s flashbacks.” Crafting an adaptation of a popular property that welcomes newcomers is no easy task, and it seems like the creators of Watchmen didn’t take it lightly. “You can see our Watchmen before you read the graphic novel, but you might want to go back, you might want to read the graphic novel, because it will give you a deeper and more richer understanding of how all these things are connected, but you don’t need to.”

Indeed, Watchmen offers different experiences depending on how familiar you are with the story. You may argue that you need to have read Moore and Gibbons’ work so you appreciate all the symbolism and references to the graphic novel, as well as the ways the show deconstructs and subverts the comic. HBO’s show isn’t really a direct sequel, nor is it a remake, but a little bit of both, as well as something new. Lindelof has long referred to this show as a “remix” of Watchmen, both in an Instagram post, and again during the press tour shortly before the show’s premiere. Talking to Rolling Stone, the creator explained what this meant. ““I called this thing a remix, because it doesn’t feel like a sequel to me. But it does by the traditional rules of a sequel, in that this chronologically follows the original. But it’s also kind of a prequel, because this story starts in 1921, which predates any of the events of the comic.” 

At Midnight, All the Agents…

If you are familiar with the bare bones of the source material, you’ll recognize how Lindelof does with the characters of the graphic novel the same thing Alan Moore did with Charlton Comics characters when he came up with Watchmen. Though not explicit, the main characters of the TV show mirror those from the graphic novel. The chief of police serves the purpose of The Comedian, Looking Glass serves as the show’s version of Rorschach due to similar costumes, cynical view on the world and even how he speaks. Reading the graphic novel before watching the show feels akin to having been an avid superhero fan in the years before Moore and Gibbons deconstructed the genre. You might recognize the tropes and the easter eggs that give an extra layer to the storytelling of the show. Once the show starts reintroducing legacy characters like Silk Spectre and Ozymandias, the show designs their introductions to be moments of awe for old-time fans who recognize these characters. 

In that same Rolling Stone interview, Lindelof goes to compare the source material to a “sequel, but the first story never got written.” And that’s exactly how the Watchmen show feels if you don’t read the graphic novel before watching. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it a way it feels fitting for the story of Watchmen to be dropped into a story that takes place years after an important piece of the story, which you will only discover little by little.

The closest comparison would be the original Star Wars trilogy. One thing that made those movies special was how lived-in the universe felt. Back in 1977, audiences were dropped in the middle of a decades-long conflict, with no idea of how it all began – a sequel to a movie that hadn’t been written yet. We get reference to a Clone War, an order of Jedi that has been eradicated, and a chosen one who will defeat the bad guy and restore balance. These things are referenced in passing, the same way we refer to historical events without the need to fully explain it. In comparison, it is much harder to watch the Disney trilogy with no prior knowledge of Star Wars. The historical events referenced in the film are given such importance that it is vital to have seen the original trilogy. 

According to Damon Lindelof, part of the appeal of the HBO show is that it will be equally as confusing for newcomers and long-time fans of Watchmen. He tells Rolling Stone that, at least for the first episode, he imagines two people watching the show together. One person has never seen anything of Watchmen before, while the other can quote every chapter and verse of the Under the Hood story-within-a-story. By the time the episode ends, they’re both enthralled by the story, but the long-time fan isn’t exactly sure how to explain it to the other. 

It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice

This bit is important. If you have not read Watchmen and decide to watch the show, do not Google anything in advance. In some ways, it does feel like the show was made with newcomers in mind. Though the first episode – very much like the graphic novel – drops you headfirst into a complex story with many moving parts you won’t fully catch at once, it slowly fills you in just like Moore and Gibbons’ did back in 1986. 

That squid rain in episode 1? It will keep being referenced, but the show will give more information as to its origin and importance to the world of Watchmen. The titular Watchmen and the Minutemen? We’re starting to see the story of the later being recreated through the show-within-a-show American Hero Story which recreates the origin of Hooded Justice. As for Watchmen, the latest episode casually tells us the story of Laurie Blake in conversation. What’s interesting is that the show does give us plenty of information, but again it treats it like historical facts, just as a way for the characters to remind each other instead of fully explaining to the audience. 

This is a useful way of both making the universe of the show feel lived-in. And it also serves to give the audience just enough to be interested in the legacy characters and past events without overwhelming them, as the show fills in the blanks of what happened in the 30 years since the original Watchmen. It even revisits some moments from the graphic novel – only from a different perspective. Moore and Gibbons dropped readers in an alternate 1986 while also slowly filling the details of the previous few decades of the comic’s history. By the first issue we didn’t know why we should care about the Minutemen, but by the end of the graphic novel we knew they were as vital to the current story as any of the main characters. HBO’s Watchmen mirrors this and presents its story non-linearly. 

The result is a TV show that’s both a new story, a remake, a sequel and a prequel – or, as Lindelof called it, a remix. You may want to be familiar with Watchmen in order to pick up all the small details, or you can simply enjoy the story for what it is and allow it to slowly fill you in on everything you need to know. Either way, you’ll be experiencing one of the best superhero stories in years, one that you’ll want to revisit and dissect as much as comicbook readers did back in 1986.

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